In an elegant house hung from ceiling to basement with exquisite artwork, the centerpiece of Marilyn Murphy's kitchen is a $5 ceramic pharaoh. She bought it from Sam's. The pharaoh's face is concave, like a Jell-O mold, and cheap light glints off a basin of water at its base. It looks like the doorstop in a tiki lounge.
"Walk over here," Murphy calls from across her kitchen island. A visitor takes a few steps forward. "Now look," she says, watching as the perspective changes. Suddenly, from beside a vintage toaster sleek as an Airstream trailer, the face appears to lunge forward. What's more, no matter where the visitor goes in the kitchen, the face follows like a supernatural security camera. Murphy literally leaps off the floor with delight when the visitor jumps at the realization.
"It works also from below," Murphy adds, her voice as giddy as a trick-or-treater's. She and the visitor seesaw up and down on either side of the kitchen island, popping up like groundhogs to witness the effect. In this cozy room, with its placid view of the woods near Radnor Lake, the face injects a note of playful menace. It shivers the tranquility of the surrounding kitchen, giving the careful arrangement of the accessories and cabinets the tension of entropy held precariously at bay.
That's one way of looking at it. The opposite could be argued as well: that the surrounding kitchen somehow tames the raging pharaoh, confining him within the sturdy bounds of domesticity. Another way of reading this scene is that the knick-knack is goofy as hell; it tickles Marilyn Murphy every time she sees it. She genuinely likes the kitschy thing, which doesn't look so kitschy framed in this context. Whatever the case, as the face sat in plain sight at Sam's, she found in it something that no one else saw.
Whatever is cooking in Marilyn Murphy's kitchen, it isn't food. "I can't cook," she says. "It's the timing thing I'm not good at," she admits, then adds almost apologetically, "I get distracted." And yet all around her is evidence of a razor-sharp focus: her paintings and drawings, which transpose seemingly vintage images into a quietly jarring contextnot unlike that pharaoh in her kitchen. They are detailed and composed with cinematic clarity, governed by a work ethic as rigorous as an artisan baker's.
Is Marilyn Murphy simply another contemporary ironist indulging in quotation-marked Fabulous Fifties exotica? Or is she something more subversivea transformative, sometimes skeptical observer whose appreciation of these square suburban ideals and imagery is nonetheless genuine? Those issues have simmered throughout Murphy's three-decade career as a painter and professor. Now a major exhibition means to settle the matter, while making a case for Murphy as a local artist of national scope and significance.
Murphy's work, and by extension her life and upbringing, is the subject of "Suspended Animation: Works by Marilyn Murphy," a large-scale show running through Nov. 28 at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. It coincides with her new show at Cumberland Gallery, her home of many years. The occasion is momentous for several reasons. It amounts to an overview of her career, placing (and interpreting) her dauntingly large body of work within a narrative context along thematic and chronological lines. (See David Maddox's accompanying review of the Frist show on p. 29.)
It also marks a pivotal moment in the Frist Center's brief history. For the first time, the museum has devoted a major show to a single working Nashville artist. In any city, selecting that one artist would be a political nightmare. Not only would that first choice face withering scrutiny from the rest of the art scene, it would set the tone for the museum's relationship to the city's contemporary art. Should it be someone already established with broad popular appeal? Should it be something edgy and closer to underground? Should it be as representative of the city as Red Grooms' carousel sketches, or not bound specifically to Nashville?
The selection of Murphy satisfied many of those issues. "We want to give the traditional museum imprimatur to local work of museum-caliber consistency and quality," explains Mark Scala, the Frist's exhibitions curator, who organized the show. "We felt that Marilyn's quality had not been communicated adequately." In Murphy he found an artist whose oil paintings, graphite and colored-pencil drawings, and prints have been shown at more than 260 exhibitions across the country. She has been a fixture of Vanderbilt's art department for almost a quarter of a century, serving in the late 1990s as its chair. "At this point," she says, sitting in near-Brentwood splendor, "I'm probably someone to react against."
She eschews overt political content in her work. "I'm usually kind of veiled," she says. Instead, the iconography of her paintings is the memory world of the 1940s and especially the '50s, when Murphy was a child. Like the angora-sweater Hollywood of David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, it's a dream evoked in bold contrasts, cool surfaces and collectively shared imagery: the happy homemaker in the spotless kitchen, the cowboy's sweetheart riding the range.
"I found my parents' era very romantic," Murphy says. "I would hear my mom talk about all the lovely places she went in New York, and she had the over-the-elbow gloves, the whole thing." Also, she adds, "I don't want my things to be dated, so I don't put people in contemporary clothing." The representations are lifelike, the style close to photorealistic. Visual puns and sight gags abound. At this point we should raise the dreaded "a" word: accessible.
Look closer. The homemaker in "Home Cooking"is that suburban bungalow in her oven-mitted hands coming out of her oven fresh-baked, or is it going in to meet a fiery fate? The cowgirl in "Ranch Twister"is she aware of the tornado roaring up behind her, or is she going to rope that twister and bring it down? A drawing called "Ascension," with a woman hanging on a ladder presumably extending to her lover's window, could just as easily be called "Descent," so ambiguous is the woman's direction of movement.
"Her work has a psychological tension that's very expressive of Middle America, this balance of repression and explosion," Scala observes. "The forces within are equated to the forces without."
A sinister wit resonates throughout her work, a kind of what's-wrong-with-this-picture quality. At times it recalls the surrealist japes of Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in which one off-kilter detail exposes the chaos barely contained by social ritual. Tell her it reminds you of cartoonist Charles Addams, creator of the cheerfully macabre "Addams Family," and she enthuses, "Oh, I love Charles Addams. And Night Gallery!"
And yet if you're expecting some morbid loner, Murphy's presence in person comes as a shock. Tall and vivacious, quick to laugh, with the high cheekbones of an icy Hitchcockian blonde, she's disarmingly down to earth; she discusses her work with a forthrightness many artists disdain. "She demystifies the preconception of an artist," one admirer says, and a docent leading a tour group through the Frist echoes this assessment. "She's gorgeous, she lights up the room, you'd love her," he tells the grouphis next line inferring that she's nothing like an artist.
"She has this peaches-and-cream, apple-pie aspect with a hint of devilishness," says Manuel Zeitlin, co-owner of Zeitgeist Gallery, who contributed some of his own holdings to the Frist show. "She's so wholesome, and yet there's this dark side you get a glimpse of in her work."
Wholesome" conjures up the Middle America of Murphy's youth. The child of a father and mother who worked for American Airlinesthey conducted their courtship on the roof at La Guardiashe was born and raised in Tulsa, Okla. Then as now, Oklahoma was a place where blue skies could yield violently to thunderstorms and tornadoes, elements that recur in her early work. These forces of nature often appear enclosed within an internal frame, such as a postcard or Polaroid snapshot; it is unclear whether they are safely contained in their borders, or ready to rip through the surrounding calm.
The household she describes was traditional, but with atypical details peeking around the edges. Her mother, who died last year from Alzheimer's, had a pilot's license, but she gave up flying once her children were born. She urged Marilyn to learn to fly. Her mother's hands were always active: even when the family watched TV, Murphy recalls, her mother would sit sewing. One thinks of the faces in Murphy's artwork, which are usually either obscured or cut out of frame. The emphasis instead is often on hands engaged in some mechanical activity.
"I've always done hands a certain way," she says. "They're hands that work. But I realized only a few years ago that the hands you see in my work are my mother's hands."
Her brother, now an experimental filmmaker in New York, was expected to get a business degree because he'd have to support a family. Not so for Marilyn. "Art for me was fine," she remembers, "because somebody would always take care of me in my dad's mind." A glint of mischief flickers in her smile. "Which didn't quite happen."
In the 1970s she attended the University of Oklahoma. The school placed an unusually strong emphasis on experimental film, and Murphy developed a passion for the work of Stan Brakhage, James Benning, Michael Snow and other filmmakers pushing the farthest edges of the form. It complemented her delight in film-noir imagery, the high-contrast world of deep shadows and femmes fatales. Her love of movies is evident in her work: in the subjects who are cut off in mid-frame, in the peering perspectives that create a sometimes voyeuristic quality.
After completing grad school and making a brief stab at the 1970s Manhattan art scene"I didn't have the time to invest in the politics," she saysshe came to Nashville in 1980, at the behest of Vanderbilt. At the time, she recalls, there were "about five artists" in town, among them painters Carol Mode and David Ribar. They formed a close-knit group.
With few spaces to exhibit, Murphy and other local artists staged guerrilla openings at venues such as Peabody's Cohen Gallery. Essentially "bring-your-own-wine parties," as Murphy recalls, they were organized around themes such as "Dangerous Works," a show for which the only rule was that neither the patrons nor the gallery could be hurt. For fun, in dead summer, they would throw Mardi Gras-style costume parties in a Second Avenue loft space. This was in the city's bust years, when the street was pocked with padlocked warehouses and boarded-up storefronts. Nashville's masked and befeathered artistes would have stood out like macaws in a chicken coop.
Or like women in Vanderbilt's fine arts department of the early 1980s. Of the 300-odd tenured faculty in the university's arts and science program, Murphy says, only seven were women. The student body was scarcely more diverse. "They were all blond and had straight teeth," she says. "They were great students, but they were indistinguishable." As she remembers, the art program placed more emphasis on art history than on generating new work.
Throughout the 1980s and '90s, though, the university, the arts scene and the city as a whole began to simmer with new energy. Incoming residents from cities with thriving arts communities began to rouse Nashville with new perspectives, new exhibition spaces and surging vitality. Murphy was there as both spectator and participant. She joined the board of the Sinking Creek Film/Video Festival and ushered visiting experimental filmmakers from her college days around the city. When Sinking Creek changed its name and focus to the Nashville Independent Film Festival, she remained vigilant when the festival's experimental programming began to weaken. That block of programming is now one of the Nashville Film Festival's great strengths.
She's delighted by the changes at Vanderbilt over the past two decades. The student body has become more diverse, Murphy says, "ethnically, intellectually and economically." So has the university's arts faculty. Next month begins a new era in the department's development: the ground-breaking of a studio arts building near Memorial Gym, for which Murphy and her colleagues Michael Aurbach and Don Evans lobbied for some 15 years.
The inevitable trade-off is that Murphy, a longtime champion of experimental filmmakers and struggling artists, now fits within the establishment, something the Frist honor makes official to a degree. Her colleague Mark Hosford, a Vanderbilt assistant professor and printmaker whose work hangs in Murphy's home, says she has moved beyond adventurous street-legal spaces like Ruby Green and the Fugitive Arts Center. "She's more distinguished," Hosford says. "She's kind of proved her weight."
"She's pretty much a star," Manuel Zeitlin says. "She's not a snob: she doesn't keep herself outside the art scene. She wants Nashville to be a better place. And she doesn't do it with words. She speaks through her work and her actions."
Right now, in the airy basement studio of Murphy's home, her actions consist of putting on a self-constructed "airplane hat" with yard-wide wings and zooming around the room with outstretched arms. Among her passions is making elaborate silly hats. "I have to bank to get through the door," she says, tilting her arms and the hat to the left. She encourages a visitor to test the echo effect in her hardwood stairwell.
All around, offsetting this zaniness, is the enormous, exacting volume of Murphy's work. She and her husband Wayne, an Australian ethnomusicologist and opal dealer, share adjacent studios. Most nights they retire to work. An entire series of sketches that pun on old bromides (e.g. "keep your feet to the fire") sits arranged on the wall near her desk. Layer upon layer of finished drawings lie in large drawers. She once estimated that she needed 40 hours to complete one piece. There's one drawerone of more than a dozenthat contains perhaps a year.
A file cabinet nearby brims with potential subjects. Dancing feet (her husband's). A black-and-white clipping of the Chrysler Building. A lobby card for an old Humphrey Bogart picture. Murphy loves the folds of the dress draped across the faceless bit player at the photo's edge. It is the kind of detail that animates her work: slightly sinister, ignored by most, evocative of a collective dream of the past that contains as much threat as promise. "Are you going to do Bogey?" the visitor asks. Murphy nods no.
"Too much face," she says. "I don't like faces. I like work."
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